Don’t get mad, get even: 5 lessons hotels can learn from Airbnb’s guest experience

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By Mark Abramowtiz, VP Marketing, SiteMinder

Airbnb’s recent acquisition of trip-planning service Vamo has further confirmed its rapid rise from an up-and-comer, to a major hospitality player.

Just as the hotel industry started to deal effectively with the changing landscape created by internet-savvy travellers and online travel agents (OTAs), the American ‘share-economy’ site strode on to the scene, turning every property on the planet into a potential vacancy.

The site, which allows tourists to stay in private homes around the globe, is now valued at $25.5 billion (USD), and is forcing the hotel industry to try and work out how best to deal with a challenge they’d never before considered.

Reactions have varied wildly; some have resorted to legal action, others have decided to dip a toe in this brave new world and advertise rooms on the platform, and there are still many more that appear to have buried their heads in the sand.

For most hotels, the first two options are neither desirable nor feasible, and the third is what got so many businesses in trouble when the OTAs began their rise. But while it may be almost impossible to compete on price, the staggering success of Airbnb offers several useful lessons on the guest experience for today’s hoteliers:

1. Know your local market inside out

One of the main drivers for the success of Airbnb is the changing nature of the modern traveller. Increasingly, people are looking for ‘experiential’ travel and seek to achieve this by staying in less ‘touristy’ neighbourhoods, choosing to eat and drink away from the beaten track, and interact with locals in an attempt to uncover more hidden gems.

Airbnb has recognised that simple and constant communication between the homeowner and the customer is crucial, with those offering their properties often passing on recommendations for the best coffee or local bar to those staying at their property. The site has even compiled a series of neighbourhood guides to help visitors get everything they want from their stay.

2. Use your staff’s local knowledge and tap into their likes

A hotel’s offering now needs to encompass, not just a room, but a whole city. The best and simplest way for venues to ensure customers have a memorable stay is to take advantage of the fact that hotels have often been part of their communities for years, decades or even centuries. This institutional knowledge – and that of staff, who often live locally – should form a key part of the industry’s strategy to further engage guests.

There are various ways to do this – from producing online guides like Airbnb’s to increasing face-to-face engagement with guests, and attempting to offer them assistance for their whole stay, not just the time they spend in the property.

3. Be more flexible with guest options

To appeal to the travel-savvy Airbnb demographic, hotels may also need to introduce a greater degree of flexibility in their services. The constant interaction on Airbnb means everything is negotiable – from price, through number of guests, to check out time.

Increasingly, especially in the ‘shared economy’ in which Airbnb exists, the consumer has the power. Let’s say, for example, a business traveller is on a late flight and wants to check out a bit later in the morning as a result, or a family of five want to stay together in one room. With Airbnb this can almost always be arranged, but hotels can appear less flexible. This may have to change if more traditional properties want to win customers again and again.

It’s also worth considering how much information a more personalised approach would provide – conversations like these could provide all sorts of valuable data on what’s most important to your customers. Using your internet booking engine, such as SiteMinder’s TheBookingButton, you can tailor pre and post-stay communication and offers to suit specific guests and build repeat custom. Your guests are more likely to be loyal if they have a unique and tailored experience.

4. Make the most of your hotel’s website

But arguably the key facet of Airbnb’s rise is its website. As befits a company started by designers, the interface is clean, the filters are incredibly simple to use and the pictures are always stunning. Airbnb employs a team of freelance photographers to take shots free of charge for those not able to do their property justice. Again, this provides the user with control over their own selections and provides an aspirational element to the experience.

Hotels should reflect on this process and ask if their website does the same. Does your site offer genuine choice? Does it look as good as it could? Does the user feel like they can converse easily with the business? These are all questions hoteliers should ask themselves about their site. They may seem like supplementary issues but ultimately they all drive bookings for Airbnb, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t for hotels too.

5. Think about what makes your hotel different to a home

All that being said, there’s little value in hotels slavishly copying the Airbnb model. It’s always worth talking up the points of difference in the hotel experience – perhaps it’s the sociable atmosphere of the bar, or the exclusivity and convenience of room service that sets a hotel apart. If so, talk these up to potential customers.

In seven years, Airbnb has grown from a tiny startup into a business with over 1.5 million listings that accommodates more than 17 million guests in 34,000 cities and, regardless of the views of some in the hotel industry, they seem to be here to stay.

Whether or not you agree with the model, ignoring the reasons for their rise can only have an adverse effect on business.

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